Inspiring Adult Learners: Validating the Intangible Benefits
by Ariel J Puleo
As Amie Claire Raymond highlights in her handbook chapter entitled Adult Learners: The Promises of Voluntary Education, adult learners engage in learning experiences at their own volition. Unlike children, there is no law mandating that they remain in school and subject themselves to the demands of engagement, homework, and testing. Raymond recognizes that "the reasons that adults engage in learning impact what and how they learn. In order to effectively teach...(the) teacher must understand the motivations and goals of the learner." This chapter will build on Raymond's work and focus on two contrasting approaches to learning that, while having the same ultimate reason to learn, are problematic either in their method or inspiration behind attaining that goal. The first question raised asks how do we, as teachers/mentors, inspire learners who don't want to learn (or aren't willing to put in the effort), but do want a positive outcome, such as job attainment. The second question looks at how learning is made valuable for those who do want to learn and are willing to put in the work, but because of legal barriers, it is difficult to see that the learning will aid future outcomes. In the case of the first question, learners in this predicament are in need of a teacher/mentor who is able to strengthen their engagement with the educational process so they feel more willing to continue on and enjoy their learning en route to the end point. The second question raises controversial issues of immigration and job rights, but from a broad perspective, it is useful to explore how students like this can be encouraged to keep up their effort and how their knowledge and enthusiasm can be put to good use despite uncertain formal applicability.
Expressions of Desire
This duality between learning and reward manifests itself in my field placement where I have been teaching ESL classes to adult learners. The adults speak the same native language and attend a few hours of ESL and math classes every weekday in exchange for childcare. While some of the adult learners express a genuine interest in learning and becoming proficient in English, these learners are undocumented immigrants and therefore cannot obtain a job beyond the under-the-table ones they currently hold. Others relate that they are only attending the classes so that they can obtain the free childcare they receive for participating. Another variant of students are those who come because they know that an understanding of English will help them attain a better job, but are then not willing to put in the work in order to successfully reach their end goal. When you combine learners with such a wide array of incentives for education, as you would find in adult education classes across the spectrum, it becomes a challenge for the teacher to engage all of the students at once.
One of the students (we shall know her as ‘Claire') I worked with during a one-on-one tutoring session falls into the category of someone with the desire to learn, but whose goal isn't attainable within the society they currently live in. Claire and I spent a few hours doing pre-GED (middle school level) work on reading and science. Her largest academic obstacle is that she only completed school up to a third grade level in her native country, so she isn't just translating her knowledge into English, she is learning completely new subject matter in a second, and still problematic, language. Despite this obstacle, she has set her sights on passing the GED within three years. Upon asking Claire why she hoped to take the GED, she replied, stating that she has hopes for a higher paying job so that she could better help her husband support their children. Unfortunately for her, her legal status, which we have also discussed, will prevent her from obtaining a higher paying job, regardless of her education.
Another small group experience brought to bear the first question of how learners can be inspired when they have no desire to be engaged in the process. During a group discussion, Elise asked me if they could talk in their native language instead and take a day off from English. Explaining to her that the purpose of the exercise was to help them become comfortable speaking without a fear of saying something inappropriate and without an urgency to respond flawlessly, Margaux chimed in and responded "that's why it's not important, it's not urgent." Here, Margaux and Elise demonstrate the difficult that educators face when they cannot directly explain how something in beneficial, or persuade their students that, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect - or at least improvement. As with the physics students discussed in Elby (1999), both the women and the students are doing what they believe they need to get by. While both would benefit from a deeper understanding and more practice with the concepts they are learning, the tests they take, either for grades, or to help the center gain continued funding by showing improvement, are written tests focused on memorization, not creativity. Both the physics students and the adult learners I have been working with recognize that rote memorization is not the best way to learn, but for the hoops they have to go through, it is the most effective. In essence, rote memorization and learning social scripts is the quickest way to understanding the system that society values so highly and in cases where a fast pay-off is important, personal curiosities are put on hold by necessity.
Creating a Productive Learning Environment
So, when Claire, Margaux, and Elise are all found in the same classroom, what can be done to mesh their goals and beliefs to maintain a positive environment? It seems that in order to bring learners together into a cohesive and productive setting, it is beneficial to extract the common thread between the learners in your group. Since adult learning is not compulsory and the reasons for engaging in it vary so widely, learners may not feel a cohesive bond to their peers, to the material, or to their teacher - of whom they may not trust to understand their goals and desires. Thus, the following few steps are a skeleton approach to creating a productive learning environment; the actual "steps" are individual and highly molded by the teacher and the learners.
Find out why your students are there. All students have a story that is both individual and similar to their peers, and that explains something about their point of view, their interests, and their goals. While you may perceive some goals as more valid and attainable than others, it is vital to recall from Engaging Minds (Davis Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2007) that all learners can demonstrate sufficiency no matter what stage they are at. For one learner, the goal of getting any job could be sufficient in the effort and time demanded from it, while for another, a goal of understanding advanced chemistry would take a similar amount of effort, time, and feel similarly rewarding. Most importantly, just as professors encourage their students to come to office hours so they can get to know who they are teaching to, extra-classroom teachers also need to know who they are teaching to, for the benefit of both parties. Once you, as the teacher, know something about each student, you can make informed choices as you move through the teaching and learning process that stimulate student growth, despite of the variety of underlying goals.
Establish an Overarching Goal:
Now that you have asked questions of your learners, you have gained a big-picture view of the people you are working with and can look towards focus areas that would make the class more cohesive. Said another way, what is the common thread between all of your students? And what is it that they feel helps them and motivates them? It is unlikely that nothing will link them, as they all ended up in the class together. In the case of the adult learners at the ESL program in question, the students are all there for the benefit of their children. At the moment, they receive free, educative childcare while they take their ESL classes, but even in the long run, many have intentionality in taking the classes. Those who are barred from the formal employment system through social structures recognize that their understanding of English may not help them attain a job, but it will help them to aid their children in navigating the system. For these learners, a knowledge of English helps them to maintain a sense of agency and parental empowerment as they are able to help their children consider colleges, high school courses, and are more understanding of the culture that their children are growing up in. For other learners, they are documented and will be able to attain a higher paying job with increased English capabilities, and these students recognize this advantage, but say that it is not for themselves, it is for their family.
Despite an apparent common thread, it is also important to consider not just what you, as the facilitator, believes links them, but what the students believe connects them. Before imposing an overarching goal, ask the class if they can come up with a goal together. Question the students as to whether they see commonalities or have shared experiences that inform their perspectives on education. Even if the students generate the same goal that you generated with them in mind, ownership is empowering and will go a long way in keeping them motivated towards reaching their goal, rather than your goal for them.
Peer Mentoring and Collaborative Learning:
Finally, Lee (2003) discusses the importance of collaborative learning in Adult Education and the importance of the teacher and the students feeling they all have a voice and the agency to mold their learning environment to suit their needs. As she puts it,
Collaborative learning mobilises (sic) the social synergy that resides within a group of co-learners engaged in a dynamic process of shaped inquiry. Through dialogue, learning as shared inquiry evolves by critically exploring the perspectives of others. ...There is an ongoing negotiation of roles among the community of learners. (79)
Thus, working though the common thread as a whole, and establishing community goals for learning can be helpful in expanding the depth and value of the educational process. The dialogue resulting in co-learning can also expand the opportunities for both the uninterested students and those who question the ultimate outcome of their learning. Peers become mentors for each other, sharing their enthusiasm for certain subjects with others who struggle to see the connection between the subject and their personal, and communal, goals. In the case of the learners at the ESL program in question, Bruffe's (1999) conception of people being able to "reacultureate themselves by working together" by "weaken[ing]" or "renegotiat[ing]" ties to their communities, plays a strong role in Lee's conception of collaborative learning. Rather than taking teacher who comes from a different culture than the students and asking each student, individually, to entirely adopt this new culture in order to be successful, in a sense, peers offer an educational support group that can confirm which parts of this new culture can be adopted without compromising the culture they grew up in. Affirmation of beliefs and learning go a long way in creating a safe environment in which to stimulate a growth of curiosity and ultimately of knowledge.
Conclusions and Unanswered Questions
The ideas presented in this commentary are only starting points from which the reader can expand. There is no magic solution for inspiring learners who are failed by the system, or by personal interest, but some of these learners will be caught and rescued, in a sense, from engaged instructors and learning environments. In expanding on these ideas, consider these questions left unanswered:
Question: A desire for future learning depends, in large part, on educative experiences (Dewey, 1997; 1938). If a student encounters continuous situations that are uninspiring or discouraging, they will not be so inclined to continue on with their education. Can lack of a desire to learn, even with an end-goal, or a desire without a feasible end-goal lead to mis-educative experiences?
Rationale: Dewey believes that, to a large extent, a good teacher can get to know the student well enough to avoid mis-educative experiences. These experiences can be anything in a learner's environment that the learner perceives to be forced, uninteresting, or not beneficial to their learning process. Thus, lacking a desire to learn can have a strong impact on the way a learner perceives the immediate tasks at hand. Connecting tasks directly to the student's end goal may help to ease the tension and reduce the risk of turning them off completely.
Question: Is a learner still "learning" if they aren't engaged in the process for the "right" reasons (for example, to get out of work, or obtain a free service)?
Rationale: It is often difficult to tell if a learner isn't learning at all. Sitting in a room during a lecture does not guarantee that you will absorb the material, but inevitably you will learn something, even if it is about yourself and your ability to concentrate. Therefore, exploring this question will help educators to parse apart what is actually being learned from what one appears to be learning. Establishing an open relationship with the student, or with outside students who may not feel pressured to provide false but "pleasing" answers, and asking questions about learning and the learning process could shed light on aspects of the question at hand.
Question: How do societal systems conflict with educational ideals and prevent the learner from becoming fully empowered?
Rationale: This question is broad in its implications and its possible answers, but important in its potential for informing educators. All of us live within a society and a culture that is dictated by systems, such as the government and the schools, that demand of students certain qualities and abilities. When a system demands an ability that a learner does not have, it would be helpful for practitioners (mentors, educators, etc.) to understand ways to develop this ability, or ways to navigate this system without that specific ability and rather with the multitude of other abilities that the individual holds.
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